By my unofficial and completely speculative count, J.K. Rowling launched the “Harry Potter” series in upwards from 234 bistros, flats, castles, coffee shops, libraries, phone booths, buses, trains, caves, back alleys, and pawn shops spread over 27 countries and a few former colonies.
I swear, for example, that she got the original idea while living in a flat just above mine in a funky old apartment building in Point Loma, a once-funky waterfront corner of San Diego, California.
The woman upstairs looked very much like Rowling, in retrospect, and neighbors say she practiced the “dark arts” when not bartending at a rough-stuff pub down the street. A pub frequented by commercial fishermen who all looked suspiciously like Rubeus Hagrid and aging surfers who looked not unlike Peter Pettigrew. I swear I saw the woman, one day, walking up to her flat with a handful of No. 2 pencils and a spiral notebook.
Be that as it may, I await Ms. Rowling’s denial of the facts as I have presented them.
It seems she must now spend a good bit of time denying that she wrote this or that bit of “Potter” in this or that establishment or on this or that bus. Half the cabs in London claim that she came up with the expression “Gallopin’ Gorgons!” while riding in their back seats.
Even more exhausting must be the business of denying that this or that establishment served as the inspiration for the most descriptive elements in her novels. Take Hogwarts, for example. No less than seven aging castles, mostly in Germany and Scotland, claim to be the architectural source for the rambling, dark, slightly gothic, school for promising young magicians, according to my carefully fabricated calculations.
Next to “J.K. Rowling slept and/or wrote here” plaques, signs on places claiming to be her source of inspiration for one thing or another seem to be all over Europe and that other country, the one that floats lost and listless to the west.
It wouldn’t have hurt if she did. Livraria Lello has been called the most beautiful library in the world. Even though it is actually a bookstore, called Lello & Irmão. It even has a Harry Potter room in the back and coyly enough, doesn’t deny ties to Rowling.
But she does: “For instance, I never visited this bookshop in Oporto. Never even knew of its existence! It’s beautiful and I wish I *had* visited it, but it has nothing to do with Hogwarts!”
Rowling denies lots of false claims, like this one, on Twitter.
She added, by way of consolation, that she wrote in a cafe on Rua Santa Catarina, one of many vehicle-free streets in Porto. It was probably the Majestic Cafe, as there is none more beautiful anywhere.
“If it cheers up the people who’re disappointed about the bookshop in Oporto, I wrote in here sometimes,” she posted to Twitter. “This was probably the most beautiful café I ever wrote in, actually.”
We didn’t know any of this last October when we visited the bookstore. Apparently, neither did several hundred other tourists. There is a long, long line to get into the store. You even buy a ticket a couple of doors down.
Imagine that, a bookstore has a separate operation in another building, just to sell entrance tickets to customers. The modest fees contribute to the upkeep of the store, built in 1906. The interior has the feel of a wooden sailing ship, with a stunning winding wood staircase, stained-glass ceilings, and polished wooden cabinetry and moldings — all designed by Xavier Esteves.
When we first spotted the bookstore my first thought was, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
We couldn’t even find the end of the line of marks waiting to get in.
“Maybe someday when there aren’t so many cruise ships in town?” I suggested helpfully.
Fortunately, we had that luxury. We returned to Porto several weeks later after completing the Camino de Santigo and rose early to beat the traffic to the bookstore’s front door.
There were only a couple of hundred people in line when we got there.
Three types of people are drawn to the bookstore — those who think it is a Harry Potter shrine, those who admire the aesthetic grandeur of the interior, and teenage girls who use it as a backdrop for glamorous photos of themselves.
There is a fourth group, people who actually buy books, but it is a minuscule subset.
It is safe to say that the bookstore is being loved to death. We loved it, for sure, even as we jostle shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, like disgruntled commuters on the subway trains.
“If fewer of them showed up, I could take better pictures,” thought every single person with an iPhone who ever walked into Lello & Irmão. Still, to visit Oporto and not ramble through the bibliophilic gauntlet?
Gallopin’ Gorgons! Unthinkable!